Saturday, February 28, 2009

Which Computer Skills Are Easiest To Learn/Most In Demand?

A query for the hive mind:

My brother, a draftsman, finds himself unemployed. He doesn't want to leave the area, as my folks are getting on in years, but the employment situation in southeast Missouri is bleak indeed. Suppose he were to try to acquire some computer skills that might find him some employment, e.g. something in the vicinity of "consulting". The question: what computer skills should a person in such a position set out to learn? He doesn't aim to get rich, just to get by until he can go back to drafting. So optimally, he's looking for something he can pick up more easily rather than less easily and more quickly rather than more slowly. Also something more like: high probability of low income rather than low probability of high income.

Any ideas?


Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, consulting jobs in IT typically require knowledge of server administration, security policies, enterprise software distribution, or enterprise desktop support at the very minimum. If he's starting from a point at which he doesn't know what he needs to know for a consulting job, he's probably pretty far away from attaining the necessary skills to be a consultant.

For instance, to merely know how to support enterprise desktop computers (that is, desktop computers working in a business environment), Microsoft's opinion (with which I concur) is that you should know at least enough to complete two tests which each cover about 700 pages of Microsoft Press books.

That's not unattainable by any means. The exams are only $125 apiece and the books are self-study oriented and about $70 each. The problem is, the result would be a level of knowledge that puts you at about the point at which you could be a good help desk staff member, but not a good consultant. Most people, like I said, want consultants for network administration tasks (like installing a new Antivirus system on their Windows Small Business Server and distributing the software to their machines) or for security-oriented tasks (making sure the company's Exchange (e-mail) server meets best practice standards, for example). To know enough to really do this responsibly, it likely requires a couple years of experience and four more exams' worth of knowledge.

In short, if he's at a point in his computer knowledge where he needs someone else to tell him what to learn, I fear he's really far off from a consulting position. It can be particularly dangerous work, too, as you will be dealing with a company's technology infrastructure and you need to know how to keep yourself from destroying their systems or what to do if something goes wrong while you're there. You don't want to be blamed for that sort of thing. Legal repercussions aren't the only reason.

However, if he needs basic computing skills that would allow him to get a position doing data entry or dealing with databases, that might be a much more reasonable place to start. Maybe that's the kind of consulting you were considering in the first place. I've never really considered that to be "consulting", but if that's what you meant, then sorry for the long explanation above.

If that is what you mean, he can probably get some books on Microsoft Office and Microsoft Access in particular. Microsoft Access is the primary database program used by businesses out there today, as far as I am aware. If he knew Access and the rest of Office reasonably well, that could open up some doors like that for him.

I'd start here:

What I'd suggest is looking into the area around him, seeing what kinds of requirements jobs have technologically speaking, and then aiming his training at those requirements. If he sees a lot of database-oriented jobs around him which require knowledge of Access, start with the Access book. Since he has little experience, it might not hurt to get this:

And go for a Microsoft Certified Application Specialist certification just so he can put it on his resume to prove that he's serious about the new skills he's acquired and that he is certifiably capable of competing with people who've been using the software for years.

It's nice to be able to say something like "You know, after I took the exam and did my studying, the people I've encountered who have used the software I've studied for years do things in very strange ways. I think it was a benefit for me to learn correctly the first time so I didn't develop any bad habits that would make tasks which should take 5 seconds take 5 minutes."

Employers would love it.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Consulting gigs require credentials, so I don't think he'll get anywhere with that.

I'd guess the lowest-entry prospect that he might like would be web development. But, honestly, unless you've got a degree or tons of experience, nobody wants you for most computer gigs.

I recommend taking some time to learn MS Office inside and out and gunning for a data entry job. They suck. Like, hardcore. But, the skills are both easy to pick up and in demand. High probability of low income, for sure.

Also, since he's a drafter, there might be a way for him to muscle into some kind of graphical work (see above with web development). It might be worth learning Adobe's Creative Suite stuff and looking for something like that.

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If he's been drafting in AutoCAD one area he can look into is rendering, in other words taking blueprints and converting them into 3D views of finished projects from street views to walk-throughs. My experience with architectural/engineering firms is that it's a fairly specialized niche but it's a valuable skill to have. It does require some aesthetic sense beyond the pure technical skills. It would be relatively easy for him to learn the relative skills based on his background. I agree with the other commenters, trying to break into consulting/network administration (what I do) would be difficult.

9:19 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

As The Mystic and Joshua said, consulting is the wrong word. Your brother is looking for contract work.

Given his drafting experience, he might be a natural for user interface work - layout, decoration (icons, graphics, photos), etc. Learning to program Java or C++ requires high investment of effort, so that's out by your criteria.

What's easy: HTML, Javascript (not the same as Java), perl. To learn these, he might get a blog and play with its template and other mechanisms. There are plenty of on-line HTML resources and maybe enough scripting reference materials, too. Using free stuff is good when you're on unemployment.

One reference he might look up is a blog-friend's (Newscoma/Trace Sharp's) site across Big Muddy in NW Tennessee, NewsTechZilla. It's actually sadcox/Scott Adcox whose content would be more interesting to your brother.

Unfortunately, I have no idea whether there's a living to be made in this or how to find work in it, but it seems to be what's most possible to learn well enough to actually do.

But please note: His market is not just regional, though contacts help. Any web design can go over the wire, so it can be done anywhere for anywhere.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, 'contract work' sounds more like it.

Thanks for all the info, guys. I know nothing about such things.

8:10 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I gotta disagree with liberal about HTML, Javascript, and Perl being easy to learn.

Most people who learn that stuff and think it's easy are in the same category as the people I encounter in my job who write the sloppiest code. One person I know who is one of these self-taught coders writes so horribly that, should I ever need to maintain or adjust any of her code, I'll literally have to rewrite it.

Learning how to program, even the easiest stuff, needs to start with a good foundation in fundamental design principles so that the generated code is actually valuable beyond its initial implementation.

Without going back to school or taking on some serious self-study initiative, I wouldn't recommend HTML, Javascript, Perl, or the like. I know the idea is just to gain a basic income and not to be a fantastic developer or anything, but I have to be opposed to it still because it's kinda immoral to say you can do something that you just can't do well - it's like building a fence for someone when you know absolutely nothing and the fence will likely collapse a year after you're gone. Also, it's just going to be frustrating to get even the most menial things done.

So, I'm opposed to that. The data entry thing or some similar office job (mundane, yes, but should be enough to get by for a while - it'd probably prod him into learning new skills, too) is really the easiest thing to go after.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

As this is my field of work...

The easiest and fastest thing would probably be to get A+ certification. This is not in as much demand as it used to be, but can probably be picked up inexpensively at a local vo-tech center for the training/classes. What this would allow him to do is to fix people's computers when they need things like components replaced, want to hook up external components, reformat and back-up hard drives, etc.

The target audience for this is people (often senior citizens) who have computers but are afraid to do anything with them.

Web design is a possibility, but not as easy as most people thing. Plain HTML *is* extremely easy (sorry Mystic, but HTML is dead simple). The issue is that no one *uses* plain HTML anymore, so what you really need for web design is a working knowledge of HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (I despise Javascript and refuse to deal with it) and a basic knowledge of PHP and MySQL.

Add to that a good eye and you're set as a web designer. But this isn't stuff you can pick up in a weekend. If you're good you can get it in a couple months, but if you're starting from the ground up--not so much. (I've spent the past year and a half teaching myself php and MySQL, and it's more complex than you'd think.)

Regarding his software skills (this is my line of work) if he's very good with office he can get MOUS certified and *maybe* find a help desk/support job for a university/large corporation. But I wouldn't count on that. Everything thinks they "know" Office, and as someone who supports it on a daily basis? Most people don't even have a clue what they're really doing.

If he has any database skill, Access and MySQL skills (and any database skills) are very useful and good for getting jobs. But again, you can't learn stuff like that in a weekend, or even several weekends.

So I'd say a lot of it depends upon what his current skill set is, what he likes to do, and how much effort he's willing to put into it. If he's taken a computer apart and put it back together, I'd go for the A+ certification.

If he thinks he knows Office inside and out, then look into MOUS certification.

If he's done some web design on his own already, it might not hurt to look into web design skills.

If he's done any database work--focus on that, because that's the most likely to get you a job that pays decently.

But don't expect to be rolling in the money from any of those. Much of it is a matter of luck and where you end up. (My husband has a CS degree and I make more than he does in my software support job, but that's not that much; we just both like our jobs.)

3:18 PM  

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